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SMART board preps for new leadership in 2021

Change is coming in early 2021 to the leadership of the North Bay’s passenger rail system, with more than half of SMART’s 12-member policymaking board up for reappointment ahead of a year that promises a litany of challenges.

New faces will occupy at least a quarter of the board’s overall seats as some longtime directors step away from Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit following the results of this year’s elections. Still others lack guarantees they’ll return to their seats to help guide the $653 million rail system.

“It’s a very pivotal time for SMART,” said Santa Rosa Councilman Chris Rogers, a SMART board member who helps represent the largest city on the 45-mile line. “With the new voices and new energy, what you’ll start to see is not the perspective of those involved with SMART from its inception … and I think that’s a good thing for hitting reset and bringing in different people that have a different perspective. That only enhances our ability to meet the expectations of the public.”

After losing her bid in March for a fourth term on the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, Shirlee Zane will exit the SMART board in January following a 10-year run. Also saying farewell are San Rafael Mayor Gary Phillips, who served as SMART’s chair in 2019, and Healdsburg Councilman Joe Naujokas — neither of whom sought reelection to their city positions last month, disqualifying them from maintaining the appointed roles.

According to state statute, their vacancies must be filled by other elected officials who serve on the transportation authority boards in each of the two counties. In the case of Zane’s former seat, another Sonoma County supervisor must accept the role. Supervisor Susan Gorin, who chairs the Sonoma County Transportation Authority and is ending her year at the helm of the Board of Supervisors, said she will take over the position.

Phillips, a nine-year SMART board member, is expected to be replaced by San Rafael Mayor-elect Kate Colin. She said this week she was hopeful of the support from her City Council colleagues to succeed San Rafael’s longtime mayor.

The seat held by Naujokas the past two years will go to another city representative in Sonoma County who is on the transportation authority board and receives the backing of the majority of the nine cities. So far, Cloverdale Councilwoman Melanie Bagby, who last month won a second term to the City Council, has been the only eligible person to openly express interest.

“I think I have a pretty good grasp of how transportation funding works at this point,” Bagby said, noting no date exists for extending service to Cloverdale. “I know who the players are, and know we need to hold people’s feet to the fire that claim to be climate warriors, but don’t seem to think the farthest-flung city on the SMART line needs to have SMART service.”

The four-year terms for seats currently filled by a pair of former two-time board chairs, Windsor Councilwoman Deb Fudge and Marin County Supervisor Judy Arnold, are expiring as well. Both have clear paths to rejoining the SMART board, and each said they will seek reappointment — with Fudge eyeing completion of the extension to Windsor scheduled by the end of next year.

“I’ve loved serving on the SMART board,” said Fudge, who just won her seventh term on the Windsor Town Council. “One of the most fulfilling things I’ve done is help start a commuter rail in these two counties, but I’d specifically love to be a board member that welcomes the train into Windsor.”

Regardless of who sits on its board of directors, SMART faces a difficult path forward. Due to the pandemic, public transit agencies across the Bay Area and nation are up against dwindling ridership, uncertainty over funding sources and a need to continue closely watching — and possibly cutting — costs.

SMART, which launched service in August 2017, recently refinanced bond debt tied to construction of its initial 43-mile line, saving nearly $3.5 million per year. Sales tax revenues that support the majority of the 12-year-old agency’s operations are also coming in better than forecast at the start of the stay-at-home orders, but SMART will still need to renew its quarter-cent tax extension to ensure its long-term viability beyond 2029. A renewal effort in March fell 13 points short of the two-thirds majority it needed to pass with voters in the two counties.

“I think that will be one of the key decisions for the board in 2021,” said Novato Councilman Eric Lucan, SMART’s board chair. “We know as a board we need an ongoing revenue source and that appears to be renewal of the sales tax, so it’s just a matter of timing and when the board and community feel is the right time to go back out and ask residents to extend.”

The board will need another leader to manage the process with Lucan’s time as chair also coming to a close in January. The position traditionally swings between representatives of the two counties every two years, and Sonoma County is set to retake the reins in 2021.

Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt, an eight-year board member who also serves on the Golden Gate Bridge District board and Metropolitan Transportation Commission, will himself need to be reappointed, which is seen as all but a certainty. Once that formality is out of the way, he is ready to take on the task if voted into the position by his board peers.

Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt, an 8-year SMART director, is poised to become the agency’s next board chair. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)
Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt, an 8-year SMART director, is poised to become the agency’s next board chair. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)

“SMART is an incredible asset to the North Bay. I think I can be the guy to lead the board to address issues and represent staff in a way that works,” Rabbitt said. “We cannot build ourselves out of traffic. (SMART) will only grow in time in ridership and everything else, and be more and more relied upon as that fourth lane of the freeway, as it were. And if we’re really going to achieve the greenhouse gas goals in Sonoma County and suburban and rural counties, they have to made through offering a convenient alternative, and I think SMART can do that.”

Another issue that will need to be addressed is the contract of longtime General Manager Farhad Mansourian, who has been with SMART since 2011. His current deal, which makes him one of the highest-paid public officials in the North Bay at $319,595 in base salary last year, runs through August of next year. Critics of the agency have long said the board needs to move off Mansourian to renew the public’s trust in SMART and build support for a future sales tax extension.

SMART General Manager Farhad Mansourian.(Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat, 2017)
SMART General Manager Farhad Mansourian.(Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat, 2017)

“They definitely need to replace him, and they definitely need to oversee the staff, and they’re not,” said Novato resident Mike Arnold, an economist who helped lead the successful campaign against SMART’s sales tax renewal. “We’re assuming they’re going to extend his contract. It’s essentially the same core issues. That was the campaign and that will be the next one, too, unless they change their way.”

Rabbitt defended Mansourian, calling him both a “very commendable leader” and “the glue that holds the organization together.” The board will determine the general manager’s potential future with SMART next year.

The 12-member body appears set to again include longtime directors Barbara Pahre, the current vice-chair, and Larkspur Councilman Dan Hillmer, as well as Patty Garbarino, the most recent addition to the SMART board in June 2019. Hillmer was reappointed for another four years in October through his seat on the Transportation Authority of Marin.

A flare-up last month over layoffs within the Golden Gate Bridge District was threatening Pahre and Garbarino’s board seats that feed into SMART, with calls they be replaced on the bridge board in favor of more union-friendly directors. So far, however, Pahre, who represents Napa County, and Garbarino, of Marin County, appear safe and have the backing of each county’s Board of Supervisors for another term, respectively.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @kfixler.

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